Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek, Lena Endre, Madisen Beaty
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Expectations: High. I’m a big PTA fan.
I don’t know… I don’t know… I don’t know… These were the words that I repeated as I left The Master and walked to my car. I continued through the car ride, and now I’m typing them. The feeling hasn’t gone away in the slightest. I don’t know if The Master was good, I don’t know what exactly The Master was saying, I don’t know if I liked The Master. It’s a tough one, this film, and coincidentally I felt somewhat similar after seeing There Will Be Blood in the theater in 2007. But where that film ended with a definite conclusion, and a scene that remains unforgettable and distinctly quotable, The Master does neither.
The Master is about two men. One is Joaquin Phoenix, playing a troubled ex-Navy man named Freddie. The other is Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the master, the leader of The Cause, a cult/movement concerned with curing people’s problems by confronting their past traumas and digging up past lives. Through the movie, we’re glued to these two men, for better or worse, and through them we are supposed to uncover the story of the film. I don’t really mean that in a plot sense, as the film contains a narrative that makes sense and is easy to follow, I mean it like the true story of the film is in the subtext of their interactions and it’s for us to unravel what the character’s motivations are and any meaning we might derive from this.
A good movie will explain everything, but a great movie will leave something provocative on the table to keep the conversation going: the origami crane in Blade Runner, the top in Inception, the joyful ending of A Clockwork Orange. The Master goes a step further and leaves almost everything on the table, asking the viewer to piece the entire film together. Herein lies the heart of the matter as to why I don’t know how I feel about the film. It’s just one of those movies that you have to process. I imagine repeat viewings would allow a careful viewer to uncover some meaning here, but I doubt that I will be game to see this again for a very long time.
But I don’t want to paint a bad picture of the film, it’s thoroughly engaging (as long as you know what you’re getting into: a slow-moving character drama) and it’s absolutely stunning to look at, every single shot. Seriously, an alternate title for this could be: Cinematography 245: How to Make Literally Everything Look Amazing. The performances are also universally riveting, commanding your attention and holding you in awe for extended periods of the film. As Hoffman tells Phoenix to answer his questions without blinking, I too tried to focus on the film without blinking, putting myself into the film, not because I wanted to, but because I could not help myself. I was compelled to participate by the power of the scene. It’s heavy, man, but like playing Super Mario Bros. and jumping along with Mario when you came to a hard jump, there was never a choice.
Reflecting on the film, I do feel that I’m gaining some insight into the point of it all. Just writing this has helped me to solidify my thoughts, and the ending seems to have gained something of an underlying, logical meaning in my mind. And even though I’m having a hard time understanding if I enjoyed the film or not, I can honestly say that I did not leave the theater unsatisfied. Questioning and puzzled a bit, yes, but not unsatisfied. Actually, this very well may be Anderson’s best film technically, but it is definitely not his most fun to watch.
I think history will look back on the films of Paul Thomas Anderson as defined by his composers: “The Jon Brion Period” & “The Jonny Greenwood Period” & “Another Oddly Spelled Jhohn Period” (if he continues the trend). I definitely prefer the Jon Brion era, as the films are sad and meaningful, while still retaining a whimsy (just like Brion’s music). There Will Be Blood and The Master are definitely a lot harder to enjoy, but they feel like Anderson coming into his own as an artist. Where his early work readily shows off his Scorsese/Altman influences, his last two films feel wholly his own. Paul Thomas Anderson is America’s eminent auteur of the modern era and I’m happy to have seen his latest work. But overall, did I like it? I don’t know… I don’t know… I don’t know…